Friday, September 30, 2016

Nurse Rosalind

We continue our investigation of the view of women in the medical professions with the biography of Sister Kenny (1946).  Elizabeth Kenny (Rosalind Russell) returns from nursing school to her parent's home in Brisbane, Australia, where she begins a career as a bush nurse.  It was a career urged on her by her mentor Dr. Aeneas McDonnell (Alexander Knox) and she finds satisfaction in work, though she intends to continue only until her fiance,  Kevin Connors (Dean Jagger) returns from the military.  Called to the bedside of a seriously ill child, she cables the symptoms to Dr. McDonnell, who responds with a horrible diagnosis - infantile paralysis (polio) and instructions to "treat the symptoms" as no other remedies exist.  Elizabeth does so, and the child fully recovers from the devastating illness - as do five other children likewise afflicted - much to the shock of Dr. McDonnell.  He determines that Elizabeth's treatment must be shared, but when Dr. Charles Brack (Philip Merivale), a leading orthopedist, ridicules and mocks her, Elizabeth determines to begin treating children with her method, regardless of the opinion of the "medical men" who despise her.

While the basic facts presented about Sister Kenny are accurate, by all accounts the story of her "great love," Kevin Connors, was fictitious.  Given all she had to go through to get her work taken seriously, it seems silly that Hollywood felt, that as a woman, she had to give up a man in order for her sacrifice to be truly important.  But, putting that aside, this is a sensitive and  well-acted enactment of work that possibly helped in the efforts to wipe out polio. 
Let's spend a moment talking about infantile paralysis.  When this film was released, it was only 17 months since the death of one of polio's most famous victims - Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Though many Americans were unaware that the disease had left the President in a wheelchair (in the 1930s and 1940s, reporters were willing to help conceal the President's condition), most realized he had been afflicted with the disease years earlier.  Polio, generally a disease of the summer months, affected everyone, regardless of race, creed, income and age,  (children were the primary targets; Roosevelt was 39 when he contracted it in 1921), and there was no way to prevent it.  It wasn't until the Salk and Sabin vaccines of the 1950s that polio could be prevented.  The result: a disease that is virtually unknown in the U.S. today. (I taught a class to junior high school students on doing medical/health research, and I would always ask them about polio. Most had never heard of it.)  For more information on polio, visit the PBS Whatever Happened to Polio? and this New York Times article on polio treatment.  An FYI - both Alan Alda and Martin Sheen, who contracted polio as children, credit the Kenny Method as the reason they can walk today.

Rosalind Russel is magnificent as Kenny, a role that was a labor of love for her.  She became friends with Sister Kenny because of her work with The League for Crippled Children.  Russell's youngster, Lance, was unable to walk, and on a visit to Russell's home, Kenny noted a spastic muscle.  Lance was admitted to the Kenny Institute in Minneapolis, and left able to walk (TCM article).  Sister Kenny was pleased at Rosalind Russell's involvement in the film, and Russell was eager to tell her story.  Though the film did not do well financially, it did earn Russell an Oscar nomination (she lost to Olivia de Havilland in To Each His Own).   Russell would say of Kenny: " If she hadn't gone stamping through the world, stirring people up, we'd have been a whole lot longer getting the Salk vaccine" (Naomi Rogers. Polio Wars: Sister Kenny and the Golden Age of American Medicine, 2013).  One more thing to note: Elizabeth Kenny was not a member of a religious order. In the UK and in Australia, "Sister" is a title given to a nurse manager.  It's a term that may disappear, according to this article in The Telegraph.
An interesting bit of trivia: in a brief hospital scene in the film, Ellen Corby appears as a scrubwoman. The performance is uncredited (but listed in the IMDB).  Years later, when Ms. Corby appeared as Grandma Walton on The Waltons, the Kenny Method is used to treat Olivia Walton (Michael Learned) in the first season episode "An Easter Story".

If there is one downside to the film, it is the fact that there are really no grey areas - Elizabeth Kenny is "good" and right, the most of doctors, like Brack are "bad" and wrong.  But as this biography of Elizabeth Kenny points out, two years after she established her first clinic in Townsville, more Kenny clinics opened in Brisbane.  While the more conservative medical community did not support her, there were physicians who did, and much earlier than we are led to believe in the film.  That "deliberate manufacture of emotional blacks and whites" is the main criticism of this New York Times review.
But, to our minds, what the Times saw as a major failing, we see as a quibble.  As the story of a notable woman, who dedicated her life to a cause she saw as important, we found this an excellent and moving film.  It makes you want to learn more about Sister Kenny and about the cause she was espousing.  As time has progressed, her therapeutic methods became the norm; thankfully, in the U.S., her clinics are no longer needed for the treatment of polio victims.  Today, the Kenny Clinic still exists, as the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, treating people with injuries and disabilities.

We'll leave you with a scene from the film, in which Sister Kenny faces down Dr. Brack. 

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